How to Give Better Gifts

To echo the sentiment of American anthropologist William Mazzarella, brands are much like gift-givers. Both are interested in maximizing some form of “utility” that follows an act of giving.

For conventional gift-givers (like the millions currently finalizing their holiday shopping), this utility is a form of shared happiness between the giver and the recipient, while for brands this utility takes the form of financial gain (for the brand) and emotional investment in the brand (for the gift-recipient). In order to be the ‘perfect’ gift-giver however, one needs to have a good understanding of how the gift-recipient derives meaning (and hence value) from the gifts that they receive, so that utility can be sufficiently maximized. Makes sense so far?

So let’s assume that you’re the gift-giver, and you’ve decided on buying a reasonably priced box of chocolates as a gift for someone special. The only problem is that you don’t really know what kind of chocolate they might like. This is a classic scenario that gift-givers face.

Let’s start by thinking about this perfect box of chocolates through the help of Cultural Semiotics. In principle, semiotics is a means for understanding the various meanings associated with different symbols. But depending on whom you ask, a symbol can have different interpretations. The great thing about symbols however, is that because they are always culturally informed, members of the same cultural category will have the necessary tools, or “codes”, through which to understand the multiple meanings elicited by that particular symbol.

Going back to our box of chocolates, what kinds of meanings might chocolate elicit? By analyzing popular culture, social media discourses, and general cultural sentiments, we can surmise a series of meanings:

  • A cognitive booster on account of how much attention nutritionists are paying to the health benefits of raw, vegan chocolate?
  • A symbol of sugar, calories, and fat that immediately reminds you of the pounds you need to lose?
  • A nostalgic reminder of nestling by the fire on a cold winter’s day with a warm cup of cocoa in hand?

Or maybe you as reader have your own understanding of what “chocolate” symbolizes. Semiotics allows us to hypothesize what all of these different meanings of chocolate may be, and how different chocolate brands bring these meanings to life.

So how can you as the gift-giver, find the chocolate brand and product that will be perfect for your intended gift-recipient (without having to go too far beyond your current knowledge of the chocolate category)? If you had an inkling that the nostalgic coziness of chocolate is the most important meaning for your gift-recipient, how could you figure out which product is best for embodying this meaning? This is where Behavioral Science comes in handy.

When faced with a question like this, we recommend using an interview technique born in Clinical Psychology to get people to tell you what kind of meanings are important to them regarding a specific brand, product, or category, and then which brands or products they think are best at engaging with these meanings. We call this technique an “Attribute Elicitation Task” (or AET). By using a strategic combination of different chocolate brands and guiding questions, you can actually have your intended gift-recipient tell you what attributes are most important to them when it comes to chocolate, as well as how well the chocolates that you had in mind would meet those desired attributes.

By cross-referencing the different cultural meanings of chocolate with the attributes that your intended gift-recipient has given you, you can actually hone in on a) what meanings of chocolate are most important to your gift-recipient, and b) which chocolate brand or product is ideal for bringing that meaning to life.

So what are you waiting for? Let’s get gifting!

Here at Fresh Squeezed Ideas, we think a lot about the future of human-centered business strategy, and how Behavioral Science and Cultural Anthropology can best work together to answer a myriad of business and marketing challenges. As our clients already know, consumers often struggle to articulate the implicit associations that drive their purchasing choices and behaviors. Combining Culture and Behavioral Science allows us to unearth the complex emotional attributes that inform consumers’ preferences for one brand or product over another.

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